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Madama Butterfly Becomes Miss Saigon

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Giacomo Puccini should feel absolutely immersed in adulation from modern-day producers of musical plays. Some of the greatest hits of musical theater in recent decades have been remakes of his best-loved operas. (Who remembers Rent, a.k.a. La bohème ?)

The “remake” is not a new concept. Indeed, there is a certain amount of security in using old stories to create modernized versions of classic tales. This allows the artists to concentrate on the music, the sets, the costumes, and the overall production while piggybacking off of a beloved plot; time-tested to be a real crowd-pleaser.

So it would come as no surprise that people would be eager to borrow from arguably the most successful opera composer of all time to ensure the success of a Broadway-style musical.

The smash hit Miss Saigon is a musical based on Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, and recounts the tragic romance between an Asian woman and her American lover. The location was moved from pre-World War I Japan to 1970s Viet Nam, while the geisha becomes a bargirl, and the naval officer becomes a G.I. sergeant. Their love story remains unchanged—and just as heartbreaking.

However, Puccini is not the originator of the story, either. He based his work on a one-act play that he saw in London called, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, by David Belasco—which itself was based on a short story by John Luther Long. This, in turn, was based the 1887 French novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti.

Therefore, more than just one remake, this particular story has been recycled and re-imagined through several versions and at least three languages over the course of a century. Still, it’s Puccini’s version that we all know and love the best.

Miss Saigon – Prince Edward Theatre. Photograph by Johan Persson and Matt Crockett

Kim channels Cio-Cio San

There is plenty of creativity to admire in Miss Saigon, but the characters are a direct translation of Puccini’s cast. Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly), the innocent geisha, is transformed into a timid bar girl named Kim, who we encounter on her first day of work at the brothel known as Dreamland.

Her boss is the shady owner, a half-French, half-Vietnamese character who goes by the title of “The Engineer.” He corresponds to Goro in Madama Butterfly.

In walks “Pinkerton” in the form of an American G.I. named Chris Scott, on his last days in Saigon before shipping off for America. He’s accompanied by John Thomas, also a G.I., assuming the duties of Puccini’s Sharpless.

At its essence, the plot doesn’t stray too far, either, even if the details are adapted to the new time and setting.

But tastes have changed during the 90-year gap between Puccini’s opera and the musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. While Puccini’s work is mostly gentle and flowing, Miss Saigon is heavy on theatrical tricks with booming sounds and busy scenery. Sensory overload for the late 20th Century crowd.

Jeff Roffman for The Atlanta Opera

Puccini, being of the verismo school, probably would have been both shocked and pleased by this modern take on his timeless masterpiece. The characters in Miss Saigon are “vero” (real) enough, but he might have felt that present-day stagecraft overshadows and distracts from the music, rather than enhancing it. Then again, who knows? There can be no doubt that lavish, over-the-top productions sell tickets these days, and certainly Puccini would have no objection to that.

Speaking of Remakes: Madama Butterfly Becomes Miss Saigon on Broadway again in 2017

Miss Saigon originally premiered at the Theatre Royal in London on September 20, 1989. It ran over 4,000 performances before closing in October of 1999. The Broadway run was just as successful, and it also had a remarkable road tour in many cities around the U.S., and indeed the whole world.

The recent revival was a huge hit in London during 2014, and will return to Broadway again this year. The opening is scheduled for March 23 at the Broadway Theatre—the same venue where the original Broadway production premiered in 1991. But it will run for less than a year, scheduled to close on January 15, 2018, before launching its national tour with stops in all major U.S. and Canadian markets.

madama butterfly becomes miss saigon
Inna Los Madama Butterfly. Photo by John Grigaitis for Michigan Opera Theatre

Most people agree that a remake is rarely, if ever, as good as the original—whether you’re referring to Hollywood blockbusters or Broadway hits. The new version is always conscious of the old, wanting to recapture the popularity while adding something original of its own. Sometimes it works; more often it doesn’t. Puccini certainly pulled it off.

There’s only one way to make an honest comparison: see Madama Butterfly as a live opera…and then try to catch the Broadway Revival of Miss Saigon in New York.  While the productions could hardly be more different, they are both attempting to capture the same emotions woven into a shared plot. Which version speaks to you, Italian verismo or Broadway glitz?

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